A Priest with Big Hands and a Bigger Heart

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This article, by Mairéad O’Brien, was first published by The Tuam Herald on December 14, 2022 

When you mention Canon Tom Cummins to those who knew him, they immediately recall his imposing stature and massive hands. Although he  oversaw and raised funds for many building projects in Westport and Lackagh and made international news when he escorted Princess Grace of Monaco on her pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick in 1961, it is his warmth, courtesy, generosity, humour and earthiness that people remember long after his death.

Canon Tom was related to me on my mother’s side. My great-great-grandfather, John Reynolds from Gurteen, Mountbellew, married Margaret Cummins, Canon Tom’s grand-aunt, making us second cousins twice removed. The Cummins family lived in Annaghmore, Moylough, and Tom was the youngest of the twelve children of Daniel Cummins (1858 – 1938) and Mary Mullin (1866 – 1934). His father was the son of local people Patrick Cummins and Mary McHugh, and his mother was from Ballyedmond, Dunmore, the daughter of James Mullin and Catherine Redington. He was not the first in the family to embrace the religious life  – his brother Canon Patrick was a parish priest in Glasgow, and a sister joined the Good Shepherd Community in Limerick. Another brother James ran a successful drapery and shoe shop for years on Bishop Street, Tuam, while Daniel worked with the Department of Agriculture in  Charleville, Co Cork and a sister, Bridget, died in infancy. At least five of his siblings emigrated to Massachusetts, USA.

Staff Group, courtsey St. Jarlaths College, Tuam

Canon Tom received his second level education at St Jarlath’s College, Tuam. He always enjoyed sport, and with his considerable height and huge hands, he made a great goalkeeper. He could comfortably hold a football in one hand and legend had it that he could guard the goalmouth with just a single hand.

After he left St Jarlath’s, he entered Maynooth College to train for the priesthood. He was ordained in July 1935 and soon found himself back in St Jarlath’s as Prefect of Studies, and a year later, he was appointed Dean of Discipline. In 1937 he took over as ‘games master’ and brought the senior Gaelic football team to win Connacht Colleges Senior Football titles in 1938 and 1939. The following year, Roscommon CBS deprived them of their ninth consecutive title when they beat them by a point in a closely-contested final. Such was the calibre of the losing St Jarlath’s team that eight players were selected to play on the team that represented Connacht in the All-Ireland Colleges Senior Football Championship that year. They beat Munster in the final to bring the title to Connacht for only the second time. It was a prestigious win as this inter-provincial competition was the only national-level competition until the Hogan Cup was introduced in 1946. St Jarlath’s reclaimed the Connacht  title in 1943, the last year of Canon Tom’s time in charge.

He left St Jarlath’s in 1944 to take up the position of curate in Westport parish and spent the next twenty-seven years going about his pastoral duties, endearing himself to the people of Westport and vice versa. After his death, a past pupil of Derrymore NS, then living in Boston, took the time to write a letter to the Mayo News to share fond memories of Canon Tom’s visits to the school. Not only did the canon have great time for the children, but he always arrived with pockets stuffed with chocolate for each of the sixteen pupils in the school

In 1955 he was appointed administrator of the parish and oversaw many building projects. The reconstruction of St Mary’s Church in Westport, which began in 1958, was a huge undertaking. He also renovated the churches at Lecanvey and Drummin. Considerable funds had to be raised and the brunt of the worry of the construction fell upon his shoulders.

St Patrick’s Oratory, Croagh Patrick. (Courtesy of The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage)

He loved Croagh Patrick and was involved in the annual pilgrimage on ‘Reek Sunday’, the last Sunday in July, greeting pilgrims at the foot of the mountain and organising priests to say Masses on the summit. He oversaw the addition of two side chapels to St Patrick’s Oratory which is situated on top of Croagh Patrick. The original oratory was built by Louisburgh man Walter Henaghan in 1905. Walter’s son Fr John, much loved by the people of Tuam during his tenure there from 1911 to 1916, was one of the five Columban Martyrs killed by the Japanese in Malate, in the Philippines, in 1945.

It was on the slopes of Croagh Patrick that Canon Tom made international news as he escorted Princess Grace of Monaco on a pilgrimage to Mayo’s ‘holy mountain’. Princess Grace, born Grace Patricia Kelly, was the granddaughter of John Peter Kelly, who emigrated in 1887 to Philadelphia from Drimurla, Newport, Co Mayo. In June 1961, the Princess and her husband, Prince Rainier, were invited to Ireland on a State visit. A private visit to her ancestral home to coincide with the official visit was mooted. Canon Tom played a prominent role on the committee that succeeded in bringing her to Mayo.

A pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick was included in her itinerary. Canon Tom was assigned to escort her on the climb and met the entourage at the modern-day car park at the foot of the mountain. A headscarf and flat walking shoes could not detract from the elegance of the former Oscar-winning actress, noted for her style and beauty. She accepted the gift of a blackthorn stick before setting off along the rough terrain, accompanied by the canon, who strode purposefully alongside her. Like many of us, she ventured no further than the lower slopes and stopped at the statue of St Patrick, where she blessed herself and bowed her head in prayer. Some of her historic pilgrimage was recorded by British Pathé and can be viewed online. Six years after the royal visit, he was appointed canon.

Ascending Croagh Patrick. Photo by Ray Bellisario/Popperfoto via Getty Images

In 1971, Canon Tom was transferred as parish priest to Lackagh, Co Galway following the untimely death there of Fr Peter Loftus. Fr Loftus had just completed a restoration and extension job on the church, which created substantial debt on the parish. One Sunday, appealing to his congregation, Canon Tom held out his two hands and said, “look at these hands – the size of them. How could hands like that be counting halfpennies and pennies?”. His parishioners appreciated both his dilemma and his humour, and with the help of a great committee, the debt was soon cleared. Then he turned his attention to the schools of the parish. Under his watch, three parish schools were extended to include General Purpose rooms, and a new school was built in Cregmore.

He was never known as a man to look for money, but he was renowned for his ability to collect it. I heard a lovely story about a hen who swallowed a half-crown that subsequently got stuck in her craw. When all efforts to dislodge the coin failed, someone suggested bringing her to Canon Tom, reckoning that if anyone could get the money out of her, it would be him.

People loved to hear his sermons, which were never too long and were always engaging and ingeniously composed to hold the interest of his listeners. He started with the Gospel of the day, moved on to current affairs, then onto something controversial from the previous night’s Late Late Show, followed maybe by a reference from the Sunday World newspaper and back to the Gospel again.

Canon Tom was also a man for the rosary beads and breviary and spent much of his quiet time in prayer. He listened to classical music, loved a game of cards and followed sport. He was a regular attendee at soccer matches abroad and was an avid supporter of Glasgow Celtic FC, the home of his brother Canon Patrick. He met many sporting stars, but it gave him immense pleasure to meet Pele, the legendary Brazilian footballer, at Dalymount Park in Dublin in 1972.

Another memorable sporting moment was in 1980 when Galway hurlers brought home the Liam McCarthy Cup for the first time since 1923. The arrival of the cup to the hurling stronghold of Turloughmore caused great excitement. Canon Tom, holding the cup in his hands, declared emotionally, “I held the McCarthy Cup in my hands in the middle of Lackagh – something I thought I’d never do”.

In 1981 he retired to Castlemacgarrett Nursing Home in Claremorris, where he acted as chaplain for the next five years. Fr Tony King, one of his successors as administrator in Westport, visited him at half-past six on a lovely sunny evening to find him resting in bed. “Isn’t it a pity that you have to be in bed on a lovely evening like this?” said Fr King. Making light of the fact that he felt the need to go to bed so early, Canon Tom replied as quick as a flash, “I’m making up for all the sleep I lost in Westport!”.

Canon Tom’s final resting place in Lackagh Graveyard. Photo by Breda Murray Finn

This much-loved gentle giant was deeply mourned by all in Lackagh and Westport when he passed away peacefully in Castlemacgarrett on November 4th, 1990. In his homily at the funeral Mass in Lackagh, Archbishop Joseph Cassidy recalled the time he complimented Canon Tom on the regard his parishioners had for him.  Although secretly pleased, the canon quickly replied, “don’t mind them at all Archbishop, it was all bluff, and I got away with it.” Those who knew him would say otherwise. Retired Archbishop Joseph Cunnane officiated at the graveside in Lackagh church grounds where Canon Tom’s earthly body was laid to rest. His immortal remains were, to quote Archbishop Cassidy, “welcomed home by the biggest Hands of all.

Thank you  to Frank Kearney and Breda Murray Finn.

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About this record

Written by Mairéad OBrien

Published here 30 Apr 2024 and originally published 2022

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